You don’t expect your child to figure out how to develop friendships without a little guidance, so why should developing a relationship with food be any different? Helping your child build healthy food habits now is one of the most powerful and lasting gifts you can provide as a parent.

Model Healthy Habits

Your kids are always watching you, and you have the opportunity to send powerful messages about food. Make a habit of sitting down to eat balanced meals rather than grabbing fast food, snacking steadily all day long or eating meals in a hurry while you’re driving.

Be conscious of the physical and verbal cues you’re demonstrating while you eat, too. Don’t grimace or wince while eating healthy foods, even if they aren’t your favorites. Comment on what parts of your meal you’re enjoying, saying things like “Mmm, this spinach is really good. I like the lemon juice on it,” or “This salmon tastes really fresh today.” Be mindful of how you talk about your body, too. Don’t ever make comments about feeling fat around children. Talk instead about how strong your body feels.

Change Your Labeling

“I ate chips for dinner; I’m so naughty.” “That brownie is bad for you.” “Peanut butter is so fatty; I shouldn’t eat so much.” When you make comments like these, what your child hears is “It’s shameful for me to eat and enjoy those foods.” That doesn’t mean you should give kids unlimited access to less healthy foods. It’s fine to label some foods as dessert or occasional treats.

You can also help kids notice the connections between the foods they eat and how their bodies feel. Say things like, “I’m so glad I had yogurt and eggs for breakfast. My stomach still feels full now,” or “It seems like you’re really tired and cranky right now. Did you have a lot of sugar earlier? I know sometimes I feel like that after I eat a lot of dessert.”

Involve Kids in the Work

Cooking and helping to prepare food may actually help kids develop healthy preferences and attitudes around food, say researchers who reviewed 11 years’ worth of studies in 2014. Every weekend, sit down with your children to come up with meal ideas for the week. Make grocery shopping and cooking a family activity. When your child is the one who suggested, chose and prepared the asparagus, she should be willing to at least try it — if not love it.

Stay tuned to Ramey Nutrition for more tips on healthy eating and developing a better relationship with food.